Friday, May 17, 2013

A Christian Response to the "My Virginity Mistake" essay on Salon.com

This essay written by Jessica Ciencin Henriquez is thought-provoking and since I haven't seen many thoughtful Christian responses (the best I highlight below), I thought I'd attempt one.

Henriquez made a "True Love Waits" pledge while at Baptist youth camp and while she admits that she "didn’t buy into a word of it," it reinforced in her mind her already-existing fears that sex was something bad and to be avoided. She was "terrified of sex." She then faults this experience for her later divorce because she couldn't enjoy sex with her husband: 
"Without having sex before marriage, I blindly walked up an aisle and committed myself to a man who didn’t know me and gave my long-held virginity to someone with whom I had no more chemistry than a second cousin."
Several websites and bloggers have linked to the article in approval of Henriquez's thesis that sexual abstinence causes harm rather than good, which is why it deserves a response. 

I don't want to bash Henriquez, but I want to make a few observations: She doesn't mention anything about talking through her ideas/problems with other Christians. She doesn't mention any premarital or marriage counseling, or having had any guidance on what the Bible says about sex-- not even talking with her married friends about what they went through so she could know what to expect on her wedding night. There's also no mention that she was searching the Bible for answers. If she and her husband sought help with their intimacy issues, she doesn't write about it. None of us are Christians by ourselves. The Church is a community of believers who are called to pray for and encourage one another in the faith, without that fellowship we can't correctly say we're Christians, much less enjoy the blessings of the life. 

Henriquez also never investigates why sex is intended for marriage. It would go way beyond the scope of this post to explain, but I can definitely recommend some reading helps below.  Henriquez took a virginity pledge and used it to avoid working through her sexuality rather than using it to affirm what sex is intended for and to enjoy the blessing of avoiding hardships that many people who had sex before marriage now experience. Christianity isn't a list of "do's" and "don'ts" and formulas that, if followed, will magically bring marital bliss without effort, thought, and community help. Becoming a Christian or keeping pledges do not guarantee an easy life (the Apostle Paul's life had so much trouble his followers questioned whether God was punishing him rather than blessing him).  

Sexual dissatisfaction is a symptom rather than a causeAdam Holz at Boundless writes that sexual intimacy is a learning process in marriage, and its feelings change over time. Even if Henriquez and her first husband had really enjoyed each other initially, those feelings would have changed with life circumstances down the road without further work, help, and encouragement. 

Christian marriage counselor Erin Faye writes in response to Henriquez that the Church often fails people like her because we get kids to make a well-intentioned pledge and then don't explain and support everything behind it. We expect Believers to behave biblically without providing the transparent teaching and accountability to help them do it. Parents expect the church to do the job, and the church expects the parents to do it-- so no one does it! Like Henriquez's parents, churches often gloss over the subject-- but this should never be the case. I agree with Faye that:
"In doing so we have lost sight of what we are called to do. We have stopped being the salt of the earth and started rubbing it in people’s wounds. This is our sin."
Likewise, counselor/blogger Arleen Spenceley writes that sexual fulfillment isn't the end-all of marriage, it may be the least important part of the wedding ceremony. The focus on sex detracts from the purpose of marriage:
When a church (or a school or a parent) says "wear this ring" and "sign this pledge" and then stops talking about relationships, girls and boys become women and men who basically only know not to have sex. Otherwise, their concepts of marriage and sex are shaped by their friends or media. That is a problem.

In that sense, I sympathize with Henriquez because these issues were rarely addressed at my church or in my family growing up. I remember one very brave 7th grade Sunday School teacher dealing openly with sexual intimacy (I never forgot and am forever grateful) in a small group setting. I probably remained a virgin because of his testimony of how fulfilling it was in the marriage context as opposed to what he had experienced prior to marriage. The pulpit sermons I heard were helpful but did not contain much detail-- similar to what Henriquez got. But there was woefully little guidance in actual relationship-building, what Henriquez, myself, and all newlywed couples desperately need.

So, here would be my advice to any virginity-pledged person or engaged couple: 
1. Find a community of believers that is open to talking about these things. Don't just go to church and expect to hear a sermon addressing exactly what you want to know. Find a small group within that church that talks about it. Find a church that offers marriage seminars and pre-marital counseling. Make friends! If the church you're attending only blushes at the mere mention of sex-- either demand change or find another church

2. If your pre-marital counseling is a round of golf with your girlfriend's pastor, you're not ready to be married yet. If it's not several hours of sessions with wisdom on everything from communication to finances to sex, then you're not getting counseled

3. Read some books on sexual intimacy and what to expect before you get married. I recommend the following three* having read through them with my wife. 
 Sheet Music is a simple book from a Christian counselor that has plenty of humor and encouragement--it's not boring. It features chapters to read before you get married, just before your honeymoon, and afterwards.
Intended for Pleasure is co-authored by a doctor who helps explain the act of sex and what to expect. It includes the same explanations for monogamy as other books but the medical perspective (including various surveys and statistics) is helpful.
 The Act of Marriage. Tim LaHaye is best known for the "Left Behind" series, but prior to that he and his wife wrote this non-fiction best-seller. It contains a lot of testimonials from the married couple and is similar to the above books but the one I would rate the lowest of the three. 

4. Be prepared to work on these things with your spouse. Start the work before you get married, and make sure you're marrying someone who is eager to work on all aspects of improving his/her life and marriage. Saying "I do" is a covenant to work on fulfilling the relationship until death do you part.

If you're a pastor or elder at a church-- particularly one that asks its youth to make a virginity pledge-- please ask yourself if your church is providing the environment that is explaining, supporting, and encouraging  everyone in all aspects of their relationships-- from sexual fulfillment to identity and communication-- so that no one active in your church can claim the scars that Henriquez claims. 

Joni and I were fortunate enough to have several sessions of good pre-marital counseling and some Christian friends that helped with our wedding-night expectations even though we weren't yet involved with a small group when we got married (because we were moving). Shortly after marriage, we joined a wonderful small group of young couples our age that were very helpful in things beyond marriage and family. (We regrettably didn't know the books above existed until after we got married.) 

More importantly, we have read several other books and sought Christian help/guidance to help us with communication and relationship-building, the most key component of marriage and the key to sexual fulfillment. One I'd recommend to anyone even interested in the Christian perception of marriage, sex, and divorce is This Momentary Marriage by John Piper (my review) which is a free download. As mentioned above, it's an ongoing process and our choice as to whether it improves or worsens. 

Saving your virginity for your future spouse alone is something that God will bless, and my wife and I are certainly thankful we did-- as are many of our friends! But to get the blessings you have to understand them and work through them. That means living, loving, and learning with other Christians-- something that Henriquez chose not to do. I pray for her to be surrounded with friends and a supporting church so that her second marriage fares much better. 

*These are affiliate links, so I'll get a small percentage if you buy one after clicking the link.

2 comments:

Arleen Spenceley said...

Fabulous post! Thanks so much for quoting mine.

Jackie said...

great insight Justin! Both my husband and I did True Love Waits back when we were teens and are thankful we saved ourselves for each other. I am saddened that I seem to be in a minority, even among Christians, that did so. And I am attempting to raise my sons to have a passion for God so that they follow His intentions for marriage and life and have a strong foundation of why. Thanks for sharing!